Monday, January 31, 2011

Two kinds of Hell

I was too lazy to go upstairs to practise my shots on the actual table tennis table, so I was playing pseudo-ping pong with our wall outside. Our water tank (tanki)’s motor was running smoothly on the other side of the terrace. Nani Ammi (my grandmother) had just had her evening chai, and she was sitting by herself at the takht reading the newspaper. All you could hear on that humid evening was the remnants of a defeated summer day, the chug-chug-chug of the motor, and my occasional sharp hits on the wall.

I didn’t realize where that loud bang came from at first. Maybe I hit the window by mistake? No? Maybe the motor blew up? Someone fell? But whatever it was, it shook the ground beneath. I remember being so shocked that I just stood there with the racket in my hand and the ball bouncing by itself... for a slow drawn out moment. Nani Ammi had a surprised look on her face. For what felt like a couple of minutes, but was exactly 10 seconds as we later found out, we both remained fixed where we were. Then it came again. This time, I was sure it wasn’t me or the motor- which was still chugging away as indifferently as only a machine can.

This time it rang loudly in my head, and shook me so badly that I almost stumbled on a perfectly level surface. It wasn’t an earthquake. They don’t come with a bang and leave a lasting echo of a whistle in your ear. You don’t smell gunpowder in the air for miles around. Your bones shake exactly the same way though, and for a moment you don’t know what has happened.

I remember Ammi walking out onto the terrace silently, as if in a daze. We listened. No sound but the motor. Even the birds were too shocked to comment. A cat was sitting on our boundary wall, one leg outstretched in mid-air. It too was listening.
“I think, we should go inside.” We went in. 

Somebody switched on the tv. It was a miracle the power wasn’t out. A channel had breaking news: 2 suicide bomb blasts outside a Shia mosque, just 2 blocks away from our house. Some part of me, deep inside, was still shaking as if it felt the explosion replaying over and over again.
The burnt smell, the small earthquake, the shock, the painful whistle in my left ear- all explained: 2 bomb blasts 10 seconds apart. Our silence was drowned out by the swift official voice of the News anchor, and our eyes were glued to the horror displayed on screen: wailing ambulances, people screaming in silence, flashing red lights, chaos. 

Only in Karachi do you change the channel quickly after such a tragedy. You switch to a foreign channel that has nothing to do with you, or with us, or anything. Another channel, another place, where this didn’t happen. Then you get up and go about your business. It keeps coming back, of course, but you push it away.

However, as we sat down for our dinner later and finally put the news at 9 back on, we learned the tragedy wasn’t over yet. People had taken to the streets in protest. Burned cars and hit policemen trying to clear the scene. People had shaken fists at the tv cameras and shouted terrible threats to their favourite punching bags. But people had done worse. There was a KFC restaurant right beside the Shia mosque (where 5 people had died due to the blasts), and people- common people- were attacking KFC. 

We later heard that the 6 KFC workers on duty had brought down the shutters, and helped all their customers escape out the back door to safety. Then they had hoped to spend some time inside the locked store until things calmed down outside. But somebody thought it was a better idea to set the building on fire. 4 KFC employees were burnt to death that night, while 2 of their colleagues, who tried to escape the fire by running to the freezer section (and by mistake locking themselves in) froze to death. Six young, middle-class, hard-working boys. Who had mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and children. Who had tried to make an honest living, working at the local business. Killed. Not by a terrorist who blew himself up, but by people who were protesting.

People who were protesting what? Shias or Sunnis? insanity or inhumanity? Terrorists or themselves? People also torched shops. One of the shops actually housed an Art gallery, whose owner was a Shia and a friend of my dad. His most valuable possession-his paintings, went up in smoke that night. We went to visit him later, and he showed us the walls, as if they had been freshly painted in charcoal. He was a poor man, I was very sorry for him.
I remember I couldn’t sleep properly that night. I kept having nightmares of a burning hell and a freezing hell. I woke up to realize there was a third kind of hell too: the one we live in.

(this memory is from May 2005)

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